Angels Before Demons
By Bob Ekstrom, BDD contributor: Back in elementary school, there was this kid named John who always wore a knit hat pulled down around his eyes. It irked me to the point where I finally swiped it off his head one day and wore it for my own. It felt warm, so I took it again the next day and for many thereafter, keeping it a little longer each time. It got so that I didn't need a hat of my own because Johnny's was there for the taking, day after day.
I see a little of Johnny in the Los Angeles Angels. Whenever they cross paths with the Red Sox, Boston swipes their hat. It's been going on for a generation. The Sox have won 13 of their 17 postseason games against the Halos, including 12 of the last 13. And they've been the kind of victories that awaken within us a childlike lust for the dramatic. Hell, there was a time you couldn't toss a beer at me without my reflexive call: The 2-2 pitch to Henderson on its way . . .
Like Johnny's hat, the Angels are there for the taking, year after year. But here's the thing: the good times eventually end. After about a week, Johnny's eyes grew wide one day and he popped me right in the kisser, leaving me with cold ears and a fat lip for the rest of recess. The Angels had those same eyes back in September after Brian Fuentes served up that phantom ball four to help the Sox swipe another win. If there was ever a year for them to pop the Sox in the kisser, this might be it.
Sure, you can argue that - while the Sox have gotten better with a healthy Lowell and a catcher who can hit, not to mention the even/odd year issue falling in Beckett's favor - the Angels haven't improved much since last October. This is no disservice to Kendry Morales, who is replacing Mark Teixeira after all. Sox-killing Scott Kazmir is a slight plus over Jon Garland, but Bobby Abreu is a break-even for Garret Anderson and Fuentes is no K-Rod close and late.
Then, too, there's that 12-of-13 thing going for Boston. Hey, if the Angels managed only one win last postseason after beating the Sox eight times during the regular season, what shot do they have this year? That logic is, of course, distinctly New England. We have a stubborn faith in the power of past performance. In some instances that have been known to last 86 years, we surrender to its inevitability; but in others, we laud its harvest until the day it eventually pops us in the kisser.
Let's look at it another way. Put aside the rosters and historical trends for a minute and consider what our eyes tell us. Mine see this Red Sox team as a Jaguar, something in the XJ series. It looks great in the driveway, but once you get it on the open road you're never really sure it's going to get you to where you need to go.
Numerous times this season Tito & Co. had their foot on the accelerator -- remember Beckett taking the mound in the rubber game against the Yankees in August, or that 10-1 stretch going into Kansas City where they put up six runs early? - but each time they stalled. Then, over the last ten games of the season when we entrusted them to simply keep their baseball psyche oiled for the postseason, they let up on the gas and backed into a spot.
OK, lame duck tailspins are neither unusual nor necessarily fatal. In 2000, the Yankees finished 3-15 - including a season-ending seven-game losing streak - yet still won the World Series. So, too, did the 2005 White Sox despite a 22-26 stretch after building a 15-game lead. The next year, the Tigers lost 31 of their last 50 games, capped by a five-game losing streak that saw them settle for the Wild Card on the final day, yet they still made it to the Series.
The one difference worth noting is that these teams first established themselves as the cream of their seasons, whereas the Red Sox never did. Nor did the aforementioned group struggle with fellow postseason invitees the way these Sox have with the Yankees. Which brings us to the elephant in living rooms across Red Sox Nation leading into the postseason: our boys no longer believe they can beat the Evil Empire. And for good reason.
Consider this tale of two seasons within one. The Sox started out 8-0 against New York before the All-Star Break, then lost nine of the last ten. Boston hit .287 with 13 homers on the front eight, .226 with 11 homers on the back ten. Yankee starters' ERA against the Sox dropped from 6.81 to 3.71, and relievers' from 5.10 to 3.94, after crossing the break.
So, too, did Yankee bats come alive during the summer. As a team, their average against Boston increased from a first-half .268 to a second-half .326, and run production from 3.9 to 7.0 per game. The Bombers had managed only ten home runs in the first eight games, but hit 21 in the last ten off a Sox staff that at times looked as enigmatic as my son's batting tee swaying in a faint summer breeze.
I'd certainly welcome a long winter in New York -- it would give Hal & Hank time to install more Purell dispensers before Yankee Fan begins another season of embracing A-Rod - but it isn't going to happen. The Yankees will be waiting in the ALCS, but the Sox can't look that far just yet lest the Left Coasters drop a Kanye on their moment in America's spotlight.
It's got to be first things first. We've got the Angels' attention and we'll get their game. That leaves only one thing. Let's get their damn knit hat.
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